“Nice guys finish last”: so goes the well-worn mantra of the Nice Guy™. The cry of the long-suffering male friend who lets girls cry on his shoulder about their terrible ex only to watch them get with another macho jerk, the phrase oozes with self pity, as well as resentment toward all the women who don’t date these self-proclaimed nice guys. And therein lies the problem of the Nice Guy: If you think your friendship and kind actions have earned you a romantic relationship, those actions weren’t so nice to begin with. They were down payments on the relationship, or at least sex, that you hoped to get from the lady to whom you were purportedly being nice. In return for kindness and friendship, Nice Guys expect love and passion. If the object of their affection instead chooses another man, she may find that the Nice Guy doesn’t take too kindly to being overlooked.
The general attitude of the Nice Guy is that he deserves recognition for treating women with respect and thoughtfulness, but often this good treatment only applies to the women who he deems worthy. Beautiful women, virginal women, women who give him the attention he craves. Should a woman fall from his pedestal by engaging in "slutty" behavior, or by simply favoring men who are unlike him, he often finds that this particular woman doesn't deserve respect. Rather than treating women as humans, Nice Guys treat them like prizes who can gain or lose value by being given out to too many men -- and who ought to award their sexual favors to the most morally upstanding guy around. (Conveniently, Nice Guys often think this is them.)
In fiction as in life, many men seem great until they’re rejected or otherwise disappointed. Some fictional Nice Guys hide their darker sides effectively, while others are easily spotted as hypocrites. Though all of the characters listed below talk a good game when it comes to being nice and respecting women, their feelings of entitlement can’t be hidden forever.
Here are 11 male book characters who aren’t as nice as they first seem to be:
- Angel Clare - Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy: Angel Clare -- whose name means something along the lines of “bright angel” -- seems like the perfect man at first. He’s handsome, pure of heart, educated, humble, and thoughtful, and he plumes himself on treating Tess with respect: “Clare was a man with a conscience. Tess was no insignificant creature to toy with and dismiss; but a woman living her precious life -- a life which, to herself who endured or enjoyed it, possessed as great a dimension as the life of the mightiest to himself.” But when it comes right down to it, Angel reveals the darker side that’s hiding beneath his fine veneer. On the night of their wedding, he confesses to having spent two wild nights with a strange woman. But when Tess confesses that she too has slept with another man -- though in her case it was rape, not a voluntary fling -- Angel suddenly finds sexual impurity to be an unforgivable offense. The “freshness” and “virginity” he so loved about her have been tainted, and he is unable to treat her as a “woman living her precious life” equal to his own. Instead, he abandons Tess, and her life is wrecked in the wake of his rejection. Angel might seem like a nice guy compared to Alec the rapist, but really he’s a Nice Guy -- demanding credit for his respect for women while secretly thinking of them as commodities that can be ruined through sexual contact with other men.
- Colonel Brandon - Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen: I know, I know. Colonel Brandon is much beloved by Jane Austen fans. He’s portrayed as one of the most morally upright and admirable figures in Sense and Sensibility, and much of his behavior bears that out. He’s kind to Elinor, Marianne and their family. He quietly cares for the illegitimate daughter of his former beloved, at great expense to himself. None of this, however, makes it feel right when he’s awarded Marianne’s hand in marriage at the end of the book. We’re convinced that young Marianne has learned to love him and marries him willingly, but there’s a strong undertone of obligation: “They each felt his sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all. With such a confederacy against her … what could she do?” Though we’re reassured Marianne comes to love him, it’s pretty clear that she’s not in love when they marry -- which really calls into question whether Colonel Brandon cares about her desires. Perhaps in Regency England it was considered acceptable for nice gentleman to be rewarded with beautiful young women as wives, but come on: We know better now. And it doesn’t seem so nice that a man should be rewarded with the hand of a woman who doesn’t love him because he’s a “nice guy.”
- Mitchell Grammaticus - The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: A lot of “nice guys” in literature are characters who seem to be surrogates for the author. Take The Marriage Plot’s protagonist Mitchell Grammaticus, who happens to bear a slight resemblance to author Jeffrey Eugenides. Mitchell spends the book pining for the beautiful and bookish but, we’re led to believe, somewhat insipid Madeleine. Mitchell is presented as a good friend to Madeleine -- caring, smart, reliable, deeply thoughtful, and, in short, the sort of man with whom she should fall in love. Her character chooses the more bearish, manly Leonard and is punished with a volatile relationship and the drudgery of caring for a man with an incapacitating mental illness. Sure seems like Madeleine made the wrong choice, right? But the fact that Mitchell’s friendship with Madeleine is primarily based on his desire for her, rather than any true feelings of respect and camaraderie, undermines the “niceness” of his intentions. Sorry, Mitchell, you can’t just befriend a girl into loving you, and if you were actually nice, you wouldn’t feel like she owed you love in return for your freely given friendship.
- Winterbourne - Daisy Miller by Henry James: Winterbourne, a gentleman who meets the titular American beauty abroad in Europe, seems to be at great pains to treat Daisy with more fairness than other members of European high society who encounter her. He chastises one hostess for snubbing Daisy, and even takes her on an outing himself. But he seems to think respect for a woman hinges on her flirtatiousness -- or lack therof. When he sees Daisy sitting out in the Coliseum one night with another young gentleman, he immediately demotes her to a lower level of humanity, thinking: “She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect.” For all his apparent generosity of spirit, once he sees that she’s not limiting her flirtatious excess to him alone, he suddenly writes her off as a hussy. It seems like Winterbourne was less nice than he was temporarily charmed by her beauty and flirtatiousness toward him.
- Laurie - Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: Laurie is the consummate heartthrob in Little Women; girls seem to be swooning over him left and right, and even shy, demure Beth is caught up in his charm. But Laurie’s particular friend, and the target of his affections, is boyish Jo, who tries repeatedly to put him off, but to no avail. When Laurie finally tells Jo outright that he loves her, she has to tell him that she can never love him back, and suddenly “her boy” isn’t seeming so sweet and giving to her, but resentful for all he’s done to try to prove himself to her: “I worked so hard to please you, and I gave up billiards and everything you didn’t like, and waited and never complained, for I hoped you’d love me.” All of the healthy changes Jo has encouraged him to make, as a friend, have become ammunition in his battle to make her fall in love with him. The cry of the Nice Guy indeed. Fortunately Jo holds her ground and Laurie eventually redeems himself by moving on and marrying Amy, but his angry flounce after Jo’s rejection reveal he isn’t quite the considerate gentleman he seemed.
- Mr. Elton - Emma by Jane Austen: Emma herself is fairly punished for assuming she’s succeeded in making a match between the pleasant new vicar and her friend Harriet. Though nothing has been said openly, she encourages Harriet to believe that a proposal is in the offing -- and is put in a very awkward position when Mr. Elton proposes… to her. Yet Mr. Elton himself doesn’t come off very well here. While Emma has assumed too much, he has been imagining a blossoming romance between the two of them: “Every thing that I have said or done, for many weeks past, has been with the sole view of marking my adoration of yourself. You cannot really, seriously, doubt it.” Upon being rebuffed, Mr. Elton proceeds to spend the rest of the novel being witheringly chilly to the woman who dared not to return his interest. Classy.
- Demetrius - A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare: Demetrius, buddy, it shouldn’t take a magic spell to get you to back off poor Hermia. Take your own advice to your spurned lover Helena: “I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.” We end this fantastical romp with the love quadrangle between Demetrius, Hermia, Lysander and Helena magically solved, and the end of the play celebrates the unions of the two happy couples. But we won’t be fooled -- Demetrius might wind up happy with the woman who loved him all along, but he caused a lot of grief to her and to her friend Hermia along the way, all because he felt he deserved to marry Hermia despite her love for another man, Lysander. Real nice guys know that you may want to be with a girl, but if she replies “Out, dog; out, cur,” you should respect her wishes and leave her alone.
- St. John - Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: St. John is even more terrifying than the average Nice Guy. Jane’s forbidding cousin, a minister and aspiring missionary, believes he’s owed her hand in marriage because their union will serve God’s purpose. St. John sees Jane as perfectly suited to the missionary life, and so he declares: “You shall be mine: I claim you -- not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.” Sure... but when Jane offers to go as his cousin rather than as his wife, he attempts to guilt her into marrying him instead, saying “Either our union must be consecrated and sealed by marriage, or it cannot exist ... It is the cause of God I advocate ... I cannot accept on His behalf a divided allegiance.” St. John claims to be nothing but a vessel for God’s will, but he’s using his moral authority as a minister to manipulate a woman into marrying him against her own wishes. Not so saintly, St. John.
- Walter Berglund - Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Walter’s character is defined by “niceness,” but as the novel goes on it becomes clear that his “niceness” is a mask over a simmering pile of rage and resentment. He has a severe inferiority complex because his friend, Richard Katz, attracts women so easily with his bad-boy charm, while he’s got the classic nerdy blandness of the nice guy who finishes last. Even Walter’s wife Patty has a stronger attraction to Katz, and has been drawn to him since before she and Walter first dated. It’s hard to blame Walter for his repressed rage, but it seems a lot of it could have been avoided if he’d given up on Patty when it was clear Katz was more her type and found a woman like Lalitha, who appreciates his environmental beliefs and progressive fervor. Pro tip for Walter: If a woman doesn’t love you, don’t rely on your “nice” qualities to win her over -- just move on to the women out there who will actually value you. Spare yourself many years of sublimated resentment.
- Claudio - Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare: Claudio seems like such a great guy at the beginning of Shakespeare’s beloved romantic comedy. Not five minutes have passed before he declares the lady Hero “the sweetest lady that ever I looked on” and announces his desire to marry her. What a romantic. But Claudio’s true love curdles the second he’s given the slightest reason to doubt, and instead of coming to Hero with his suspicions that she’s been disloyal, he publicly humiliates her at their wedding. After he rejects her hand, calling her a “rotten orange” and “approvéd wanton,” he learns that he was misled about her infidelity. Nonetheless, he claims he “sinned … not / But in mistaking.” Claudio insists to the end that he’s a nice guy, but it’s pretty clear by the end he’s only nice as long as everything is going perfectly for him.
- Jacob Black - Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer: Jacob tries out some Nice Guy behavior on Bella herself throughout the Twilight series -- even though she loves Edward and values Jacob primarily as a friend, he keeps pushing for a romantic involvement. But it could certainly be argued that Bella led him on by occasionally encouraging his advances, only to resolve that she loves Edward more. That can’t be argued of Bella’s daughter, Renesmee. Jacob imprints on Renesmee at her birth, which means that he’s bonded with her as his soulmate. He even gives the young Renesmee a promise bracelet. Though she will grow up unusually quickly because of her vampire blood, Jacob is still jumping the gun to start building toward a romantic relationship with her so early in her life. She may seem like the perfect solution to the love triangle that has troubled his friendship with Bella and Edward, but she’s a person, not a consolation prize. Let her grow up and make a decision for herself before you start in with the promise bracelets!